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US potato inventory drops along with decline in Atkins diet craze

BISMARCK, N.D. -- The amount of potatoes in storage in North Dakota is at its lowest January level in 16 years, and officials say the waning Atkins low-carb diet craze is one reason.

Growers, dealers, and processors had the equivalent of 11.3 million hundred-pound bags of potatoes in storage on Jan. 1, down 35 percent from a year ago and the lowest January level since 11 million hundredweight in 1990, the Agriculture Department said. Mac Johnson, a vice president with the Denver-based US Potato Board, said the situation has changed since 2004, when the Atkins low-carb diet was popular and North Dakota potato stocks set an April record.

''It's a combination of things . . . but certainly the Atkins diet had some effect," he said. ''In the waning of that diet, we have seen fresh potato sales increasing slightly at the retail level."

The Atkins diet, which focused on reducing carbohydrates, was one of the most popular in US history. Like many other diets, its popularity decreased, and the company started by the late nutrition guru Dr. Robert C. Atkins filed for bankruptcy court protection last fall.

''We lost about 10 pounds of [potato] consumption per person across the US during the Atkins period," said Duane Maatz, president of the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.

''There were 20 million people every month going on or off the diet. That softened us 6 to 8 percent as far as demand goes. Any time you exceed 5 percent, the price goes down," he added.

Maatz said the reduction in potato stocks also is due to fewer planted acres prompted by lower demand and prices. Potato production in North Dakota last year dropped 23 percent from the previous year, to its lowest level since 1990.

In Maine, the potato inventory is also down considerably, said Vernon DeLong of the Agricultural Bargaining Council, which negotiates contracts for growers.

DeLong said the smaller inventory is due to a drop of 8,000 acres, to 55,000 acres, in the amount of land set aside for potatoes last year. A smaller yield also was a factor, he said, while the decline in the low-carb diet has had little, if any, impact on potato stocks in Maine, he said.

Nationwide, production of fall potatoes was down 7 percent. January potato stocks in the 13 major potato states also were down 7 percent from the previous year.

Johnson said an improving economy has led to more demand for potatoes.

''We see people going back out to restaurants, and food service represents a big chunk of potato sales, both from a frozen standpoint for french fries and fresh for baked potatoes," he said.

As demand has increased, so have prices. Maatz said the price farmers get for their potatoes is up more than 50 percent from a year ago. The US Potato Board launched a campaign during the height of the Atkins craze to promote the healthy aspects of potatoes. Johnson said it will continue.

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